I’ve never actually questioned my habit of making “Top 10 of the Year” lists. As a film dork, I’ve always felt compelled to do this neither as an end-of-the-year chore nor as any way of proving my moviegoer credentials. The way I’ve always seen it, to make a Top 10 list is to pay tribute to the year that lay behind us; to wave goodbye to all the good times and bad.
But I realized as I was compiling my “Best of 2020” list that the movies on said list didn’t hold that same power. 2020 has been a tough and bizarre year, and the films on my list didn’t feel like the sum of this year’s experiences.
Most of my time spent watching movies this year consisted of old favorites – the kinds I took comfort in – and classics that I had never found time to catch up on. Those films describe this year more than the new releases, so while I’ll still be putting out my Top 10, I wanted to first pay tribute to the films that got me through 2020.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
This is probably not the kind of movie you had in mind when I mentioned “comfort films,” but I have a soft spot for spy movies, especially ones that lean on Cold War anxiety.
This slow-burn thriller tells an intricate story with as little dialogue as possible. It takes “show don’t tell” to such an extreme that the first few times I saw it, I only barely grasped the story. After two rewatches this year, however, I consistently became more and more enamored with it. The tightly wound performances give Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy an air of sadness, and the dynamite cinematography brings new meaning to the phrase “Cold War.”
But ultimately, I think I kept returning to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy because it combines one of my favorite genres with a feeling that was practically inescapable for many this year: loneliness. So many spy movies glamorize the business of intelligence gathering, whether it’s in the high-flying action of a James Bond movie or in the exciting twists and turns of 70s thrillers. Espionage excites on film, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is dead set on illustrating the toll it takes on real people in the real world. In other words:
The Star Wars Prequels (1999, 2002, 2005)
Time to pivot away from the depressing and towards the “so bad it’s kind of good” territory. Star Wars Episodes 1, 2, and 3 have made names for themselves for being exceedingly bad…but were they really that bad?
Yes. Yes they were. The only fun part of The Phantom Menace is the ending and Attack of the Clones is a love story written by a man who has no idea how to write emotional dialogue. It’s all rather painful. This was the first time I had rewatched these movies since becoming an adult with lots of thoughts about movies, and while I agree that this trilogy is full of cringe, there are, in fact, some bright spots!
Even though George Lucas went largely unchallenged on the set of these movies when it really mattered, the trilogy shows that he is good at taking criticism and learning from it. Each movie is just a little bit better than the last, and I’d go so far as to say that Revenge of the Sith is a flat out good movie. But even if much of the trilogy was a swing and a miss, I did greatly enjoy the three weeks were my wife and I would turn to each other and say, “Well…want to watch another Star Wars prequel?”
Ah yes, the movie that was going to “save the theatrical experience.” I saw it at a drive-in.
It’s very easy for me to be cynical about this movie. I liked it well enough, but it is not one of the best movies of 2020 by a long shot. It’s not even one of Christopher Nolan’s better films – there’s no real character motivations, the story hook is overly complicated and doesn’t add any depth to the characters or story, and on top of all that, you could only KIND OF hear the dialogue in this film where you’re left to rely on what people are saying to understand what the heck is going on!
But with all of these gripes I have, both with the execution of the movie and the consequences its financial failure have brought us to, I cannot deny that as soon as the studio logos came on screen and the soundtrack started to kick in, I was dang excited to be watching a brand new Nolan movie. I got totally sucked into the spectacle of the movie, even when I couldn’t hear some of the dialogue or when I was confused about what was happening on screen. It was such a joy.
Do The Right Thing (1989)
I’ve been wanting to watch this for years, and considering the kind of summer we had here in America, there was no better time to take in Spike Lee’s masterpiece, and what a masterpiece it was.
Spike Lee presents a community filled with racial tensions, unresolved personal issues, and a power imbalance that holds a flame under a block that’s already at its boiling point. The anger that sits beneath the surface of each character is like a heat wave in New York, and even when the heat subsides and the people come together, the problems that created the environment are still there, and they’re far beyond fixing. So how does this community move forward? How does one respond to a system that rejects your heroes, your music, and your feelings? How do you respond to a system that rejects your culture and demands you play by another’s rules? What is the right thing to do with all of the anger in your own heart in a community filled with grief and injustice?
Instead of offering easy answers, Do The Right Thing simply asks the individual to choose, just as the characters had to choose. Fight the power.
The Terminator (1984)
With cancelled trips, delayed reunions and shortened visits, my wife and I (like many) missed out on a number of things we had wanted to do this year. One summer night, we were really feeling the disappointment of having to miss something over safety concerns and we were just trying to find something mindless to distract ourselves with. That’s when we flipped on The Terminator, a movie I was familiar with but had never seen. We liked it so much we watched the sequel the next night.
The Terminator is a campy 80s movie that doesn’t feel campy partly because it addresses the times in which it was released. The main character’s fear of a dark future hurdling towards her fit directly into the late-stage Cold War feelings in America, and in a year where a global pandemic, increasing nationalism, and the impending climate crisis dominated the news, it was hard not to empathize with her.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Halloween for kids looks like dressing up in costume and going trick-or-treating. Halloween for adults looks like either going to parties or watching spooky movies with friends. With parties this year not being an option, we ended up settling for a lighter tradition: watching a silly spooky movie with friends. What better movie to turn to when you’re in need for some lighthearted Halloween fun than What We Do in the Shadows?
Featuring the mad genius behind Thor Ragnarok and Jojo Rabbit, What We Do in the Shadows is one of the few movies that can make me laugh out loud in my own home. It’s a witty slapstick film that best embodies what someone once said about good comedy: “The best kind of comedy isn’t where a bunch of people wear funny hats and act silly…it’s when they wear silly hats and act serious.” It was a much-needed laugh.
Knives Out (2019)
This movie has only been out for around a year and it’s already on the fast track to be one of my all-time favorites. It’s particularly ironic because when I walked out of the theater last year, my biggest complaint was “It’s great…I don’t know if it will be as good on a second watch.” I rewatched it like 6 times this year.
Director Rian Johnson pulls on so many levers in this movie, toying with perspective, foreshadowing, and genre-bending, and all of it works on every single level. Even after coming to know every twist and turn by heart, Knives Out has become one of my ultimate comfort movies. Biting, suspenseful, and filled to the brim with unforgettable characters, it’s the kind of movie I want everyone to watch, and the kind of movie I want to watch with everyone. This is the first movie I’ll watch with a room full of friends when this pandemic is over.
The American President (1995)
I watched A LOT of Aaron Sorkin movies this year, from The Social Network to A Few Good Men, with plenty of The West Wing thrown in for good measure too. He’s one of my favorite screenwriters. With a seemingly-endless election cycle and continuous political turmoil in the air, it felt like the only thing to do on election night was turn off cable news and settle in for another viewing of The American President.
Although it shares many of its cast and themes with The West Wing, The American President stands apart from Sorkin’s more famous foray into the political realm in one crucial aspect: its whole-hearted embrace of romanticism. It’s a great movie with character and moral compromise at the center of the story, which works wonders in a political setting. Aaron Sorkin’s romantic view of politics fits in beautifully with Rob Reiner’s affectionate sensibilities, which makes it entirely removed from today’s reality. In other words, it’s wonderful.
Home Alone (1990)
As the realities of the pandemic were starting to set in, things were looking pretty scary. But at that same time, we saw a resiliency growing in people around the country the likes of which we hadn’t seen since 9/11. People came together to sew masks, able-bodied men and women volunteered to go grocery shopping for the elderly, and communities surrounding hospitals began cheering for healthcare workers as their shifts changed.
But after about a month or so, things changed as they always do. Impatience grew. Tolerance shrank. As the pandemic wore on, it felt as though people were becoming more divided than they were before COVID-19. As things got worse, so did our divisions. Before we knew it, Christmas rolled around.
Holiday movies flooded cable channels as they always do, and my wife and I ended the season having watched Home Alone several times over. It’s a great movie, but it played differently in 2020. One of the through lines is how Kevin slowly comes to learn that people who are different from him are just fellow humans with their own fears and disappointments. Setting aside all of the film’s “fighting off burglars” antics, the scene that sticks with me every time is when Kevin sits in the church with the old man next door and they talk about their families. In a year that felt like people were more divided than ever before, this scene made me choke up every time. We’re all just people.
The Godfather Parts 1 and 2 (1972, 1974)
One of the things I missed most about this year was taking my wife out for movie dates. My favorite thing in the world is watching a movie together and seeing her reaction, hearing her laugh, and talking about the movie as the credits roll. With The Godfather movies, we got to have several movie dates at home that felt pretty close to normal.
I had seen The Godfather exactly once before this year, and that was before I became analytical about movies. There’s a reason The Godfather is considered one of the best of all time. It’s such an astounding crime epic, filled with a rich mythology, fascinating characters, and a commentary on the American way. The intertwining of the personal moments and business really hits home how much this pursuit of power and success isn’t just a goal: it’s a full lifestyle. It’s a religion to these people, it’s the thing that ties them together. Business is conducted during some of the biggest events in someone’s life: a wedding, a funeral, a baptism.
On top of that, my wife and I watched The Godfather Part 2 on my birthday, which is usually when we have a lot of friends over to watch a movie. She found a way to make that day special and fun in spite of a crazy year.
To say this was a strange year is an understatement. Through it all, however, I hope you and yours found joy amidst all the craziness.